Over the next few decades, a major challenge for the Indian economy is to exploit the “demographic dividend” of having a large proportion of the working-age population. Only a well-educated workforce will earn this dividend, which in turn requires a strong school system.India has been increasing school enrolment in recent decades but has struggled to deliver real learning. An NGO Pratham’s annual survey highlights large learning deficits in basic reading and arithmetic. Only half of Class V students are able to read texts intended for Class II. Over half of Class VIII students are struggling to do simple division. There are major structural problems behind these abysmal outcomes, including ineffective and sometimes absent school teachers, especially in rural India.
By delivering better lessons, training teachers, and motivating students, education technology (Edtech), mainly information and communication technology, can address these issues. In recent decades, computing costs have plummeted to the point that even in relatively poor countries, edtech is feasible. The cost of tablets is as low as Rs. 2000 and India has the world’s cheapest mobile data plans.Edtech can help deliver high-quality lessons in a variety of formats at its most basic level: text, video, games, and interactive tutorials. There are thousands of teachers teaching the same subject on any given day. Some do it well, others do it badly. The best teachers can be used and supported by a well-made video with graphics and animations. Once this video is prepared, millions of students can potentially watch it over many years. The video can be complemented by interactive quizzes that provide the student with instant feedback.
Edtech’s ability to tailor lessons according to the student’s progress is a deeper benefit. For example, Mindspark, an Indian company-developed computer-assisted learning software, delivers lessons on computers and tablets through videos, games, and questions. The software analyzes the learning level of each student, pitches content appropriate for this level, and adjusts the difficulty to the progress of the student. A study conducted by MIT’s J-PAL evaluated a Mindspark version targeting 619 students in Delhi’s government schools and found significant gains in Maths and Hindi.The initiative was also cost-effective with a monthly cost of around Rs. 1000 per student and an estimated cost of upgrading the program under Rs.150.
Simple behavioural interventions delivered through technology, often just SMS messages, are another application of edutech, backed by research. While these interventions tend to have moderate benefits, their cost is extremely low, making them ideal for a low-budget school system. For example, parents were found to receive automated text messages about the performance of their child to increase both attendance and examination performance.
Edtech can be both a teacher supplement and a teacher substitute. In a school where teachers are very poor or often absent, edtech can provide students to study on their own with a baseline of educational inputs. But edtech can also help teachers improve. Kenya’s Tusome literacy program, for example, uses tablet-equipped coaches that visit classrooms, evaluate student reading skills, provide teachers with tailor-made advice, and upload administrators with evaluation data.The ideal situation is to combine good teachers with technology, for example in a “flipped classroom” where students learn the material by themselves through videos and other teaching material while class time is devoted to problem-solving and project work with a high level of teacher-student interaction.
Taking advantage of the edtech opportunity will require close collaboration between government, private sector and non-governmental organizations. Technology companies such as Byjus, well-funded by venture capital, are already investing heavily in technology-driven education, but their business model is more focused on well-off families that can pay for their services. To serve the vast hinterland where they are most needed, at least initially, public funding is needed. NGOs and universities also play an important role in exploring new ideas and rigorously evaluating existing projects with randomized assessments.Once a critical mass of research validates specific edtech solutions as cost-effective learning methods, public funding can help to scale them across the entire school system, possibly in partnership with the private sector.
India is the ideal country for deploying edtech in many ways. A vast system of more than 260 million students can spread the fixed costs of developing new educational material. India’s large, cost-effective software industry and telecom infrastructure that is comparatively decent also make it a good candidate. And the potential impact is definitely immense. If edtech can provide better learning for the students of today and the workforce of tomorrow, it could help accelerate a generation of economic growth.